Sunday, July 29, 2012

Lohmann: A pilot for the ages (and hers is 87)

From Richmond Times Dispatch (a couple of weeks ago):  Lohmann: A pilot for the ages (and hers is 87)

Soon after introductions, Sara Parmenter turned to me and said, "You didn't call me Mrs. Parmenter, did you? Better not have. I'm Sara."
I told her I didn't think I had, but I would be sure to use "Sara" from here on, which she seemed to appreciate.
"I'm not your typical old lady," she said with a laugh.

A few minutes later, Sara, an 87-year-old pilot, climbed into her plane and took off into the skies over the Virginia Piedmont.

Parmenter, who lives on a farm in Cumberland County with her husband, Robert, and will turn 88 in August, is a certified UFO — a United Flying Octogenarian. In fact, she founded the Virginia chapter of the national UFO organization.

On Saturday, she and other Virginia pilots who have crossed the 80th-birthday threshold were honored by the Department of Aviation in a reception celebrating the state's "aviation pioneers" at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach.

At the same event, Parmenter was given the Federal Aviation Administration's Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, which recognizes pilots who have demonstrated aviation expertise by maintaining safe operations for 50 years or more.

Others receiving the Wright Brothers award were Ray Tyson and John Greenwood, who fly out of Hanover County Airport, and Hubert Compton, who flies out of Orange County Airport.

"I feel very inadequate compared to many of my fellow pilots, some of whom have done so much, flying for the military or airlines," Parmenter said. "I can't say I have that much experience, just over a long period of time."

A long period of time is right. She took her first flight at age 7, in the early 1930s, after her father scraped together $5 so she could ride in a barnstorming open-cockpit biplane that had come to her Florida town.
"We were real poor, but my father knew I loved planes," she said. "I'd always looked at pictures and would point when one came over. I'll always be grateful to him because he knew how much I loved it."

During World War II, she served in the Civil Air Patrol, riding in small planes looking for German subs along the Florida coast, and worked as a coastal spotter, searching the skies for enemy planes and getting to know the silhouettes of every aircraft imaginable.

With increased demand for stateside nurses because of the war, she joined the Cadet Nurse Corps Program, later becoming an Army nurse, then transferring to the Air Force. In 1950, she married Robert Parmenter, an Army surgeon, and began a life of hopscotch travel around the country and overseas when his orders changed.

A year earlier, having finally saved enough money for flying lessons, she had gotten her first taste of piloting a plane. It produced within her a contentment that remains to this day. She talks about the peacefulness, the feeling of bonding with a plane and the "sense of wonderment" when flying over some particularly fetching patch of earthly handiwork — even though, she admitted, she's deathly afraid of heights.
The Parmenters moved to Virginia in 1968, finding a 40-acre farm in Cumberland where, while Robert worked as a district director for the Virginia Department of Health, Sara raised cattle and hogs, chickens and ducks, even peacocks. For a time, she would arise every morning to milk the goats before going to her nursing job at a local hospital.

"I had a lot of energy in those days," she said.

In 1972, she fell in love with a 1948 Cessna 140, a single-engine, two-seater that reminded her of a plane she'd had to sell before one of the couple's overseas transfers. She bought it, and she's been flying it out of Farmville Regional Airport ever since.

In recent years, she has served as the honorary ambassador — her face is on the posters — for the Virginia Aviation Ambassadors Program, which, among other things, encourages pilots to fly to all 67 of Virginia's airfields, which she has done, all the while happily chatting up anyone she meets.

"They kid me about yakking," she said with a laugh. "But if anybody gets me started on flying, I can't stop."
Randall P. Burdette, the state's director of aviation, marvels at Parmenter, calling her "an inspiration" and "a bundle of energy."

"I hope when I get to be 87, I'll have near the energy she does," Burdette said.

All of that, and she's Eb Dawson's aunt!

Eb Dawson, played by Tom Lester, was the hillbilly handyman who said "Golly" a lot on the 1960s hit television series "Green Acres" (one of America's finest 20th-century achievements in entertainment). Lester, the son of Parmenter's older brother (who also happened to be a pilot), is alive and well, living in his native Mississippi and doing motivational speaking.

Parmenter, who has not run across an older female pilot still flying in Virginia, takes the privilege very seriously. She is extra careful when it comes to safety, refusing to fly, for example, at more than a hint of a breath of wind. She knows that at her age, any slip-up could mark the end of her flying days, and that's not something she's eager to reach.

Even on days when the weather is too sketchy to fly or she doesn't have time, she will visit her plane at its airport hangar and "just stand there and look at it and remember how grateful I am for being able to fly."


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